Why I (still) Lift Heavy Weights

A bit of forewarning – like many of the things I write, this is a personal account of my own life. I prefer to write from this vantage not because I find myself extraordinary; but rather that I find myself quite ordinary, and I hope through my writing that you can find common ground through my rather ordinary experience.

I was never a professional athlete; I could never run a 4.4 – 40 yard dash and I could never snatch 400 pounds. I never went to the CrossFit games and I’ll never be an Olympian. I am, however, admittedly very strong for a 32 year old, which is largely because I have been weight training consistently for almost 20 years now. This makes weightlifting perhaps the longest-standing habit I’ve maintained in my life outside of brushing my teeth, and what follows are my reasons why.

I picked up my first weight at around 13 years old because, like virtually every young man who starts lifting weights, I thought muscles would get the attention of girls. I have since found this presumption to be grossly inaccurate; but as a testosterone fueled, voice-cracking adolescent, this is what I thought necessary to garner the attention of the opposite sex. My regiment at the time consisted largely of doing curls, bench press, and crunches, along with their multiple variations. I focused on the “show muscles,” and repeated these exercises arbitrarily through my early years of high school.

As a result of these efforts, I got stronger.  The weights got lighter and my muscles got bigger, and I soon found these two things didn’t really help with my general fear of girls. However, I did find that all the time spent in the weight room was giving me distinct advantages in my athletic endeavors, and so I found a new reason for lifting weights – to be better at sports. I was a pretty smart football player and was quick off the line, but I was not a gifted runner and was terrible in open-field situations. However, I knew that if I could overpower my opponents at the point of contact, I would have a distinct advantage, and I thus persisted in my weightlifting efforts throughout high school. I continued to work hard and be consistent, and the iron rewarded me by making me stronger and paying dividends on the field. It was a reward that I reaped through high school and continued to enjoy throughout my collegiate football days.

Upon graduation from college and having finished with football, I casually and somewhat aimlessly lifted weights for a few years, mostly to ameliorate stress during grad school and out of habit thereafter. I discovered CrossFit a few years after that, which reignited my love for real weightlifting. I soon started competing in CrossFit competitions, and lifted weights hard because that was the sport – I was to be strong and fast, and the two things were inseparable from one another.

After retiring from competitive CrossFit I decided to take up Olympic weightlifting to fulfill a somewhat foolish but persistent desire to be a state champion of something athletic. Having put in almost two decades of work prior, I was fortunate enough to achieve that goal shortly thereafter, and, having more or less checked off all the strength-training goals off my proverbial bucket list, decided to retire from any type of athletic competition for good. For the first time in nearly 20 years, I found myself lifting weights without a real endgame in mind.

And suddenly, I didn’t know why I was lifting heavy weights any more.

Don’t get me wrong – weight training has innumerable benefits outside of external goals. It increases bone density, promotes longevity, helps stave off morbidity and promotes independence in later life. It is a great stress relief, increases your base metabolic rate and generally makes you a more useful human being.

However, my conundrum was thus: I was strong well beyond any major health or practical benefit. Save for having to lift a burning car off someone, I was more than brawny enough to handle any practical task I’d encounter in real life. I no longer needed to be strong for sports, as I didn’t play any. I didn’t need to lift weights to get bigger muscles because I didn’t want bigger muscles. And I didn’t want to get any stronger because I was getting older and the risk/reward of eking out a couple dozen more pounds on my deadlift greatly outweighed the extremely meager benefit of doing so.

In other words, I found myself lifting weights without a clearly defined existential reason.

And yet, two years later, I still find myself lifting some very heavy weights. I still get nervous every now and again when I step under the bar to take a heavy squat, and will always try for a few extra pounds on heavy snatch day. Throughout the previous two years of lifting without a clearly defined reason, I think I’ve found a real purpose for lifting heavy weights, and it looks something like this:

I lift heavy weights because they are heavy – I move heavy things because they don’t want to be moved.

It’s admittedly a poor mashup of the old “Everest – because it’s there,” adage and some Californian watered down Zen philosophy, but it works for me. Weightlifting has transcended the physical at this point in my life – it remains a bastion of personal challenge that I put myself in every time I step into the gym. The weights, the numbers, the PR’s – they remain as artifacts of a time gone by for me; remnants of a former life where my existential reasons were wildly different. Now all that remains is a vastly simplified version. Gone are the social, athletic, personal, and competitive reasons for lifting weights.

Now all I have is me, the iron, and my effort.

As I noted in a previous article, unless I have a drastic change of heart, I’m probably done setting any new personal records in the gym. I’m ok with that. But what I’m not ok with is going into the gym and not challenging myself; not feeling that little bit of fear and apprehension when you step a back squat off the rack, not going for a little bit more when you know you’ve got it in you, not wanting to improve.

Lifting weights is hard; and doing hard things makes you strong in more ways than just the physical. Lifting heavy challenges me; and these personal challenges have helped forge an ethic and character that transcends merely being able to move heavy objects.

I think that is probably reason enough to partake.

Or, maybe I still lift heavy weights because I want to be stronger than Stalock.

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